The 4 Best Credit Cards for a Washington, D.C.-Based Traveler

Jul 13, 2016

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There are plenty of great rewards-earning credit cards to choose from, but depending on where you live and which airlines best serve your hub airport, some of them are better choices than others. Below, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen takes a look at the top options for travelers flying out of Washington, D.C.

There are many things that go into deciding which travel rewards credit cards to open and carry in your wallet. There are sign-up bonuses that may be around for a limited time, while other cards offer lucrative bonus categories for everyday purchases. You also may want to involve geography in your decision-making process, and today I’ll continue my series that identifies the best cards for residents of certain cities. After starting with New York and Atlanta, I’ll now move on to our nation’s capital.

What cards are best for a Washington, D.C.-based traveler? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

To answer the question of which cards are best for a Washington, D.C.-based traveler in today’s post (as well as future posts for other major cities), I’ll be following a straightforward format that looks at the following characteristics of a given card:

  • Sign-up bonus
  • Earning rates
  • Other benefits
  • Annual fee

I’ll then detail out why that particular card would appeal to D.C. residents. Finally, I’ll note another one or two similar options any highlight the key difference(s) you’d notice.

Before getting into the analysis, a few disclaimers. For starters, this list is aimed mainly at leisure travelers who are interested in maximizing their rewards on credit cards. If you regularly travel for business and earn elite status, the calculus may change significantly, as you have additional ways to earn points and miles, and some of the benefits I tout below may be included. Fierce loyalty to a single airline may also lead you away from cards offered by a competitor, though I would strongly encourage you to diversify in the event of a mass-scale devaluation (like we saw with American in March).

In addition, this list represents just one way of looking at the situation and is geared mainly at free flights. You may simply want a card that offers solid everyday value for other rewards (like the Citi Double Cash Card for cash back or the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card for free hotel stays). As always, feel free to adjust the list based on your own situations.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, which cards are best for a Washington, D.C.-based award traveler? In no particular order:

1. United MileagePlus Explorer Card

united - featured
Dulles isn’t the most convenient airport in the D.C. metro area, but given United’s large presence there, the Explorer Card can be a great option.

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open plus 5,000 bonus miles when you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months
Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar spent on United tickets; 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases
Other benefits: Free checked bag; priority boarding; 2 United Club passes each year; no foreign transaction fees; 10,000 bonus miles when you spend $25,000 each calendar year
Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)

Analysis: Washington-Dulles is one of United’s major hubs, serving almost 100 destinations in numerous countries. In addition to service on United and United Express flights, there are also nonstop flights on several Star Alliance carriers, including ANA, Austrian, Lufthansa and Turkish. While United did significantly devalue its award charts back in 2014, there are still some great ways to make the most of your United redemptions.

The Explorer Card earned the top spot on Jason Steele’s post, The Best 5 Cards for Flying United, and for good reason. It offers a variety of perks for cardmembers, including waived foreign transaction fees, priority boarding and a free checked bag (though you’ll need to purchase your ticket with the card to gain access to this benefit). The two annual United Club passes can come in handy during a lengthy delay, and Dulles gives you three different lounge locations from which to choose. However, I would argue that the most useful benefit of the card is the additional award inventory that cardholders can access, expanding your ability to use your MileagePlus miles for future flights.

Other option(s): United MileagePlus Club Card (United Club access and additional perks but a $450 annual fee)

2. Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard

Sign-up bonus: 60,000 miles after spending $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening
Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar spent on American Airlines purchases, at gas stations and restaurants; 1 mile per dollar spent everywhere else
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; reduced mileage awards; first checked bag free; 25% off in-flight purchases
Annual fee: $99 (waived for the first year)

Analysis: American is another great option for D.C.-based travelers, as the carrier offers numerous nonstop flights out of Washington’s Reagan National Airport. This is much more conveniently located, just a few subway stops from the heart of downtown. While the AAdvantage program did undergo its own devaluation back in March, there are still some valuable redemptions out there.

The Citi AA Platinum Mastercard makes your American travel even more valuable. The free checked bag benefit applies for you and up to four companions on the same itinerary, saving each traveler $50 per round-trip ticket. This also applies regardless of whether you use the card to pay for the flight or not; I recently checked a bag for free on an AA flight that I charged to my corporate Amex.

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.   

Other option(s): Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard (full Admirals Club membership but a $450 annual fee)

3. Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card

Southwest plane on ground Las Vegas 2 featured
Southwest can open up a wealth of redemption options from all three D.C.-area airports.

Sign-up bonus: 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months
Earning rates: 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest purchases and Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases; 1 point per dollar everywhere else
Other benefits: 6,000 points after your cardmember anniversary; no foreign transaction fees; 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) for every $10,000 spent in a year (up to 15,000 TQPs per year)
Annual fee: $99

Analysis: Another possible option for D.C.-based travelers is the Rapid Rewards Premier Card. At the time of writing, Southwest offers nonstop service to four destinations from Dulles and 17 from Reagan-National. However, the main reason to consider this card is the fact that one of the carrier’s main hubs is Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), a short train ride north of Washington. With nonstop service to more than 60 destinations (including flights to Aruba and Costa Rica), Southwest is a terrific option for domestic travel, especially for those of you in the northern suburbs of D.C.

There are many ways to redeem the 50,000-point sign-up bonus on the card, and the 6,000-point anniversary bonus nearly covers the entire annual fee, as it’s worth $90 based on TPG’s most recent valuations. In addition, all points on the card (including the sign-up bonus) count toward the Companion Pass, one of the most lucrative perks in the frequent flyer world. This card can put you well on your way toward earning the pass, and if you time it right, you can wind up with a pass valid for almost two years.

Other option(s): Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card (same sign-up bonus and lower annual fee, but no TQPs and smaller anniversary bonus)

4. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. That’s $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Earning rates: 2x points on travel and dining at restaurants and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide
Other benefits: $0 in foreign transaction fees; primary car rental insurance
Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95

Analysis: If you don’t want to commit to a single airline as a D.C. resident, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is a terrific option. Ultimate Rewards points are among the most valuable out there, due in large part to the valuable transfer partners. Three of them in particular should appeal to D.C.-based travelers: United (given the carrier’s Dulles hub), British Airways (given the carrier’s distance-based award chart and the fact that you’d need just 7,500 Avios for one-way AA flights up to 1,151 miles) and Southwest (given the carrier’s extensive service from BWI). That’s also to say nothing of the valuable hotel partners as well; my personal favorite is Hyatt Gold Passport.

In addition to these redemption options, the Sapphire Preferred card offers one of the best all-around value propositions of any card out there. The travel bonus category is quite expansive and includes things like Uber and parking, and I’ve had luck earning double points on purchases at bars that don’t even serve food. The primary car rental insurance can also be valuable by avoiding high deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses if your rental car is stolen or damaged. Just keep in mind the application restrictions that Chase recently started imposing on Ultimate Rewards-earning cards when planning out your applications.

Other option(s): Ink Plus Business Card (higher sign-up bonus and 5x bonus categories, but the 2x category only applies to gas stations and hotel accommodations)

Bottom Line

There are many things that go into deciding which credit cards are best for a given traveler, and as you can see, there are quite a few that could appeal to those living in Washington, D.C. As always, I encourage you to analyze your own spending patterns and redemption goals to identify the best card(s) for you, but hopefully this post has given you some suggestions for which might be best for residents of our nation’s capital.

For the D.C.-based TPG readers out there, what’s your favorite credit card for award travel?

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.